Interview: Jay Roach talks about directing Steve Carell and Paul Rudd in 'Dinner For Schmucks'
Jay Roach has been making movies for almost exactly as long as I've been writing about them online. The first "Austin Powers" was one of the movies I wrote about in the early days of Ain't It Cool News, and the first test screening of that film is still one of my favorite test screenings I've ever been to.
When I saw "Dinner For Schmucks" a few weeks ago, I was one of the first to do so, and they put me on the phone with Jay Roach the next day. Our conversation started as an interview about his film, but since this is the first time we've spoken after 13 years of me writing about his work, at some point he started asking me questions. It's a loose free-roaming chat, and it was nice to finally talk to him. I hope I speak to him again for the "Saturday Night At The Movies" column, but for now, this was a great first encounter:
Drew: So thanks very much for having me last night. I really enjoyed the film.
Jay: Oh good, man. I heard. That’s such good news. I really appreciate it. You know, I used to read your stuff all the time and you’re a good writer so I was like “really? He likes…” because you’ve written some good things about other films too and it meant a lot. I knew you were there and I was “oh I hope he likes it”, so that just made me day. I really appreciate it.
Drew: It’s funny because kind of like the original, the title’s a big misdirect.
Drew: You really walk into it thinking, okay how much of this is going to be the dinner and it’s not at all, which actually ends up, I think, working for the film because by the time you get to the dinner the dinner is fast and it’s nuts and it’s as weird as it can possibly be.
Jay: Yeah. I tried to get through it. Yeah, because I had a lot to live up to, but I did love the….I was happy that Steve, you know, the writers came up with that tower of dreamers speech because it was such a lunatic speech but it seemed to give the dinner a purpose and until we had that I wasn’t sure we’d be able to get away with it. But once we had that, I was happy.
Drew: I wanted to ask you about Veber just as a starting point. He has always been like this amazing high concept comedy machine.
Jay: Yeah. It’s amazing isn’t it? Yeah.
Drew: I’m just blown away at how many films have been inspired by him and he’s got such a great comic mind. When did you see the original?
Jay: I saw the original about…let’s see I don’t know what year…I want to say three years ago. I had seen certainly 'La Cage aux Folles' and then I saw 'The Ballet' and I think -- did he also do 'The Closet?' I think he might have been at least a screenwriter on that too, but he’s incredible. He’s the Mike Nichols of France to me, you know? He’s a playwright and a filmmaker and a screenwriter who’s been just cranking out these great ideas year after year. And he finds a way to have a high concept comedy premise and predicament but there’s always a tremendous amount of heart and character based, you know, comedy and interaction. So yeah, it took about 2 years of working on a script before we knew we had something that dared take the credit of being inspired by his films so that, yeah, that was daunting. He’s very impressive.
Drew: How much of that process was with Steve and with Paul involved in their roles?
Jay: They were not involved until later. 2008 is when Paul got involved -- both of them actually at the same time while Dreamworks’s financing was trying to come together and Paramount then sort of took it on, we worked on the script with them in mind from that point on.
Drew: I think Steve is such a particular guy on film and not really the most immediate choice for every comedy [like this].
Jay: (Laughs.) Yeah. I would say that’s true, but he has an ability to take a character you know that might on the surface have a certain, I don’t know like a high concept design and then find all these other layers on it, you know? Certainly on 'The Office' and the '40-Year-Old Virgin' character is probably the best example of that.
Drew: That’s funny because I was thinking about that in the car this morning as I was thinking about the movie, and kind of reflecting on it, it’s that Steve humanizes the outrageous better than anybody.
Jay: Yeah, it’s true. And I mean this character was a challenge because it would have been very easy to just play him as being idiotic at every level and kind of goofy and there are certainly some elements of that but he is so connected to the personal reality of the guy that had a personal mythology whatever you want to call it, that he found ways to express this guy’s earnestness, his desire to just be helpful. Such a strong desire to be helpful that partway through trying to be helpful he forgets what it was he was being helpful about. And that eagerness and that sort of turned up focus on looking for the way the useful, it just lit up the character and to make that funny and grounded at the same time is? Y'know, that’s what he does.
Drew: I thought that there was a really great intro in the way the film starts with the mice--the diorama of the mice.
Jay: Yeah. I’m really proud of that. The character in the original film made matchstick sculptures of iconic landmarks like the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame. And it was a really interesting way to show a character had way too much time on his hands and probably was somewhat lonely. But we were trying to look for something that was even a little bit more expressive to take it slightly a different way and we found these taxidermied squirrels dressed as two human boxing each other and there was a tryptic of them and the diorama and I found them on the Internet. And my dad was into taxidermy a little bit and it always creeped me out, but seeing taxidermied animals dressed like people and then you know the kids value of that you could see a guy seeming to be sort of pathetic and lonely and whatever and a little off-putting but then to uncover the idea that he used this hobby to actually to sort of cope with loss and loneliness and pain. I thought that could be another thing to add to what Francis had done, so we shot that and then we didn’t have the idea to do the opening credit sequence until later on in the shoot when we saw how good the mice were turning out for the dioramas and we knew we’d have a workshop where there would be this little mouse village. Originally it was just going to be a small town with all different kinds of characters as mice but I came up with the idea of having it be kind of Sunday in the Park dream date but what would he imagine that he and his wife would have done. And you could take it both ways, you could also imagine was this some kind of reenactment of what they had done. But I look at is as a fantasy. These are things he started doing after he got divorced or after his wife left him and so he imagined the perfect date in the park. So we just kept coming up with little vignettes for the mice to do. And then had our temp music editor put on Fool on the Hill when we first cut it together and it just clicked.
Drew: Well I also think it gives you permission to laugh with Steve, it’s never mean because it does that up front and he’s so obviously sweet. You never feel like you’re laughing at the guy. You’re looking forward to his appearance and he’s certainly going to wreck havoc but it’s not like you’re ever thinking, 'Yeah he’s the idiot.'
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